Denver has an illustrious black history of its own. From the jazz prominence of Five Points to early civil rights leaders like Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook infiltrating the rising Ku Klux Klan in the city to save black lives — to truly know Denver is to know the struggle for racial equality through time. In terms of race, Denver did revel in many high notes in history, especially in regards to its music scene. Playing host t0 the likes of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, amongst others who’d perform to an integrated audience in what became known as the “Harlem of the West,” leaving a lineage for current day greats like Ron Miles to raise people’s perception of skin color. In learning about Black History Month, there are many characters throughout the history of Denver, and the rest of America, who took on causes larger than themselves in order to push the culture forward and change the status quo. Black musicians are still very much pushing the platform of music and the culture in the city, so, in honor of Black History Month, we’ve compiled a list of those on the next generation, with a mission that is greater than the music.
1. Wes Watkins
At this point, it may be easier to sort out who doesn’t know Wes Watkins than who does. The former Night Sweats trumpeter is truly ingrained in Denver’s music scene, having worked with many a Denver musician, lending his multi-instrumental capabilities and his voice when called upon. With the Other Black, iZCalli, Grumpy Uncle and his self-titled project in his arsenal, Watkins is a man of many different shades and no shortage of talents. Also, an advocate and a teacher with Youth on Record, Watkins ensures that the next generation of kids has access and ability to create music on their own terms. Watkins, as a longtime advocate for Denver’s music scene, is one of a few central characters uniting the many different outfits that make this city into one united scene.
Violinist and singer/songwriter Tanya Salih, known simply as Zanib, sings with a voice imbued with pride for one’s cultural heritage and the beauty of one’s personhood. Salih descends from Nubian parents of Muslim heritage bringing Eastern sounds and Western influences together in a genre-blending output, but with love and optimism at the forefront. In a time when immigration is a core topic affecting our nation, Salih is a messenger, coming to the table with the simple mission of uniting people and cultures through her music. Also working as co-director of Colorado Village, Salih works alongside the team to find creative and empowering solutions to homelessness in the city.
Ghana-born singer Ebenezer Yebuah, known by his stage name Mawule, began his musical journey at church. Propelled by human connection and empowerment, Yebuah speaks on issues like domestic violence and his ability to love his own skin. The societal issues he speaks on are core to his sound and the earnest manner in which he delivers his catchy songs and thought-provoking lyrics. Last year, Yebuah, as a survivor and worker in higher education, hosted a fundraiser concert alongside YaSi and Kayla Marque on behalf of sexual and domestic violence victims, bring alight the issues in our community and raising money for SafeHouse, an emergency shelter those dealing with domestic and sexual violence.
4. Bianca Mikahn
Bianca Mikahn has long been a maverick in Denver’s music scene, pushing for purposes greater than herself. A singer, MC and spoken word poet, Mikahn also leads a mental health organization, Check Your Head, which specifically deals with mental health in young adults and the trials of coming into one’s own through art, as well as being a partner artist like Watkins is with Youth on Record. A social-justice advocate and with her own TED Talk to boot, Mikahn is a triple threat diving headfirst into the community, utilizing her artistry to propel her sanctified mission.
5. Ill Se7en
Acuna Black formerly known as Ill Se7en, another longtime MC and advocate for social progress, is an unrelenting force of message and substance. Born Michael Acuña, the underground hip-hop artist is also known as a youth advocate, educator and an activist in the community. Acuña works to break stereotypes and hold those who are in positions to abuse accountable, serving on civilian oversight committees for the Denver police and sheriff. Receiving President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Award in 2016, Acuña’s message supersedes his hard-hitting conscious raps and transforms the MC into a spokesman of sorts for those who can’t speak for themselves or can’t articulate the struggle of being black in America as eloquently as he can.
6. Stephen Brackett (of The Flobots)
As half of Denver’s seminal group, The Flobots, and co-founder of Youth on Record, Stephen Brackett has returned the love Denver has had for him since the early day of the hip-hop outfit right back into the community. Focusing on delivering the arts, particularly music to public school kids who’ve seen reduced art programming in schools in the last couple of years, Youth on Record has been monumental in developing kids creative pursuits especially those who are at risk without the inclusion of accessible arts programming. A Denver-native, Brackett also co-founded the NOENEMIES project, an organization that works in communities to explore and utilize protest music — to have a voice when one thinks themselves voiceless.